1512: The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican opens for public visitation for the first time since completion of the great ceiling fresco by Michelangelo.
1520: Fifteen months after departing on his epic voyage of discovery, Ferdinand Magellan enters the narrow strait that now bears his name. The “shortcut” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans cuts off significant distance from the more navigationally straightforward route around Cape Horn, and it avoids the ferocious westerlies and high sea states of the Horn passage. On the other hand, the narrowness of the channel and those same prevailing westerlies make the strait a particularly difficult passage in a sailing vessel, especially for a square-rigged design that does not go well to windward.
1618: Death of Sir Walter Raleigh (b.1552), on the order of King James I of England, by beheading. Raleigh was a nobleman-adventurer, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, who commissioned his self-financed but ill-fated attempt to colonize “Virginia” down in what we now know as Dare County, NC. He fell out of Elizabeth’s favor when he secretly married one of her (pregnant) ladies-in-waiting without the Queen’s permission. For this crime, he was arrested and held in the Tower of London for a short time before his wife was released from Royal service. In 1594 he read a Spanish report concerning Muana, a supposed city of gold in South America. A year later he led an expedition that explored the northeast coast of that continent, particularly in and around the region of Guiana. A year after his return he published an account of the voyage, exaggerating somewhat the lurid concept of the golden city, as yet still undiscovered, and now known as the famous El Dorado. But I digress: when the Protestant Elizabeth died in 1603, the Catholic James I had Raleigh arrested for treason based on circumstantial evidence linking him to an unsuccessful plot to overthrow the king. Back to the Tower he went, where he remained for thirteen years, writing prolifically, and where his son Crewe was conceived, although as a guilty traitor, Raleigh was legally “dead” during the conception. I wonder how that worked… James authorized his release in 1616 to undertake another expedition to find El Dorado. Again, they didn’t find it, but during the trip they did take the opportunity to plunder the Spanish town of San Tome. News of this act infuriated the Spanish ambassador, and for the sake of the already tenuous relationship between England and Spain, James had Raleigh re-arrested and executed. Always ready for the next adventure, as Raleigh lay his head on the block waiting for the axe to fall, he called to the executioner, “Strike man! Strike!”
1734: Birth of colonial era explorer, hunter, adventurer and elected member of the Virginia State Assembly, Daniel Boone (d.1820). After opening up the routes westward from the eastern seaboard into Kentucky, he became one of the nation’s first folk heroes for his exploits in taming the wild frontier west of the Appalachians. He spent his final years even further west in the central Missouri shores of the Missouri River, where he is buried in a modest gravesite near Marthasville, Missouri.
1755: Birth of the Austrian princess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, better known as Marie Antoinette (d.1793) wife of French King Louis XVI. Widely regarded during the early days of the Revolution as a spendthrift and empty-headed waste of oxygen, she fought back publicly with a con brio performance as a caring mother and patron of the arts. It was in vain, however, and after the King fell victim to Madame Guillotine, the Queen met a similar fate ten months later under similarly trumped up charges of treason against the French Republic.
1772: Increasingly concerned about unchecked British pressure on the American colonies, Samuel Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston form the first Committee of Correspondence, which functioned as the 18th century version of a blog, except the writing was done with a quill pen on paper or parchment, and the letters traveled by post road or were printed up as handbills. The Committees grew in importance as the Revolution developed, providing a well-read venue for debate, and allowing the leading political leaders of the time to reach an audience far larger than the usual speeches and lectures.
1783: The final public execution is held at London’s Tyburn Gallows. The place played a significant role in 18th century popular culture, with permanent grandstands set up for the regular spectacle. A number of popular catch phrases were coined to describe the happenings: a Tyburn dance or jig (i.e., the post-drop twitching); take a drive to Tyburn (i.e., in the gaol wagon); the Lord Manor of Tyburn (the executioner). According to the estimable Wikipedia, the condemned were expected to put on a good show, being both well-dressed for the hanging, and displaying no fear. Those that failed to live up to the crowd’s standards were jeered. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty coarse time. The site is now covered by the traffic roundabout at Marble Arch.
1790: British author and political philosopher Edmund Burke publishes his letter, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he examines the French body politic and its leadership through the lens of the same Natural Law that guided the original revolution in the former British colonies. Burke is not impressed, and says so in scathing and prescient terms that accurately predicted the ruinous events on the continent. His main argument is that the abstract foundations of the French revolution could in no way account for the complexity of human nature, and were thus doomed to lead to tyranny. Further, he had no time for the rule of intellectuals, arguing that, “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor.”
1814: The Congress of Vienna meets to negotiate the form of European politics after the final defeat of Napoleon at the hands of the Sixth Coalition and 25 years of nearly continuous war. The resulting Treaty of Paris exiled the former emperor to tiny Elba off the south coast of France.
1861: The day after General Winfield Scott resigns as Commanding General of the Army, President Lincoln appoints the young and ambitious George B. McClellan to replace him.
1863: Under the leadership of Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, a group of 18 nations meets in Geneva and agree to form an “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded” with the specific charter that centered on: 1) The foundation of national relief societies for wounded soldiers; 2) Neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers; 3) Utilization of volunteer forces for relief assistance on the battlefield; 4) Organization of additional conferences to enact these concepts in legally binding international treaties, and; 5) The introduction of a common distinctive protection symbol for medical personnel in the field, namely a white armlet bearing a red cross. A year later, the Committee added two more requirements: 6) The national society must be recognized by its own national government as a relief society according to the convention, and 7) The national government of the respective country must be a state party to the Geneva Convention. So if you’ve ever wondered how a “neutral” organization could make such a lasting impact on the lives and well-being of war casualties world-wide, look again at the elegance of those seven standards, and thank the ICRC for its powerful work.
1877: Death of Nathan Bedford Forrest (b.1821), whose brilliance as a Confederate cavalry commander was tarnished by his post-war association with the Ku Klux Klan. When asked about his successes during the Civil war, he was widely credited with explaining it to people by “…being the fustest with the mostest.”
1903: The Colombian province of Panama stages a revolt and declares its independence. The United States immediately recognizes the new nation, and guarantees its defense. Conveniently, the United States also has plans to build a canal across the isthmus, and the new government of Panama graciously cedes the Canal Zone to the U.S. to ensure the security and successful administration of the project.
1918(a): After four years of bitter fighting in the southern Alps, Austria-Hungary surrenders to Italy, thus closing the Great War’s Italian front. You may remember that this was the area where Earnest Hemingway was wounded as a Red Cross ambulance driver, and which later became the setting for his novel A Farewell to Arms. The Italian front also served as the backdrop for one of my all-time favorite novels, Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (1991), whose descriptions of Alpine combat vividly juxtapose the mute grandeur of the mountains with the chaotic brutality of armies clashing below. November 4th is now celebrated in Italy as Armed Forces Day.
1918(b): Spurred on by communist agitators, and triggered by the issuance of an order to sortie the High Seas Fleet for combat against the Royal Navy, over 40,000 German sailors mutiny in support of a smaller cadre of earlier mutineers who were already imprisoned. Chanting the slogan, “Peace and Bread!” (Frieden und brot!), the sailors surge through the city, overwhelming the police and taking control of key government buildings. News of the mutiny spreads throughout Germany, catapulting the Social Democrat Party (SPD) from a rump of left-wing radicals into a powerful force suddenly at the head of a communist revolution. With the real possibility of a devastating social revolution compounding German losses on the Western Front, the government convinces the Kaiser to abdicate the monarchy, thereby permitting the formation of an interim constitutional government. Although the SPD did not plan on completely overthrowing the existing order, the revolutionary and political turmoil continued to ferment throughout the major German cities but never proceeded to the level of violence or political angst duplicating the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. The German revolution fizzled out concurrent with the announcement of the Weimar Republic in August of 1919.
1926: Death of legendary sharpshooter, Annie Oakley.
1939: President Franklin Roosevelt orders the U.S. Customs Service to allow cash & carry sales of armaments to belligerents in the European war, Great Britain in particular. In the context of the earlier quid of the old four-piper destroyers (DLH 10/30), one might wonder about the quo demanded by the President Roosevelt, a quo demanded from an ally whose territory was under direct attack; an ally whose army on the Continent was on its heels and in desperate need of supplies; an ally whose food shipments from the United States were being torpedoed to the bottom of the Atlantic… for our help, Roosevelt demanded money for today’s purchases, and indefinite “lease” agreements to such British colonial holdings as Bermuda, Diego Garcia, the Virgin Islands, unlimited access to Canadian harbors.
1942: German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, having had his North African armored juggernaut stopped at the gates of Alexandria, is forced to begin his withdrawal back toward Tunisia as a result of British Field Bernard Montgomery’s armored breakout at the seam between the German and Italian forces. The advancing British not only split the Axis force, they also threatened to completely encircle the Germans. Rommel ignored a direct order from Hitler to fight to the last man, deciding instead to save his forces and make a strategic withdrawal to a position where he could counter-attack the soon-to-be overextended British tanks. Rommel’s withdrawal today was the turning point for the Battle of El Alemain.
1947: Aircraft designer and movie mogul Howard Hughes takes his enormous H-4 Hercules seaplane on a “taxi test” in Long Beach Harbor. The gigantic plane, dubbed the “Spruce Goose” by its detractors, functioned exactly as Hughes thought it would, including getting airborne for its first and only flight, which lasted all of a few moments, climbing to 70 feet and flying about a mile down range. It remains the largest aircraft ever built. After the flight Hughes stored the machine in a climate-controlled hangar, where it remained in pristine flying condition until after Hughes’ death in 1976.
1952: The United States detonates its first hydrogen bomb, Operation IVY MIKE, at Eniwetok Atoll. The blast came in at 10 megatons.
1954: Death of French post-impressionist painter Henri Matisse.
1956: First day of direct military action in the Suez Crisis of 1956. The dispute, centering on control of the Suez Canal, pitted a coalition of Britain, France and Israel against the United Arab Republic (Egypt) of President Gamal Abdul Nasser. The United States found itself in the awkward position of diplomatically opposing and militarily threatening its two closest Cold War and WWII allies in order to maintain its favorable position vis-à-vis its primary Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. The crisis had been playing out for the better part of 1956, with the nationalist Nasser overthrowing the pro-British King Farouk, followed by nationalizing the Canal itself, much to the dismay of Britain and France in particular. In a parallel slap to the United States, after the U.S. withdrew support for the Aswan High Dam project, Nasser took pains to also formally recognize Red China in defiance of the U.S. The secret Anglo-Franco-Israeli scheme was to have Israel capture the Sinai Peninsula and both sides of the Canal, after which Britain and France would call for UN disengagement between the Israeli and Egyptian forces, all the while they provided major air support from six aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and three airfields on Cyprus. The expected end state was the restoration of British control over the Canal. On this day Israeli armed forces launched their attack to capture Mitla Pass and began a systematic destruction of Egyptian forces in the remainder of the Sinai. The actual end state was a highly successful Israeli military campaign, complemented by highly effective Anglo-French attacks on Egyptian infrastructure. For its part, the United States then itself quite effectively threatened the United Kingdom with bankruptcy if it persisted on its course, and re-positioned two U.S. carriers between the Anglo-French fleet and the coast of North Africa, the success of which threat underscored Britain’s (and to a lesser extent France’s) diminishing role on the international stage in the Cold War era.
1957: The Soviet Union launches the first living being into orbit, the dog Laika, who survives the launch and initial orbit, but dies within two hours. There was no plan for a de-orbit recovery, and the Soviets announced she died by being automatically euthanized prior to oxygen deprivation. Recently opened archives indicate she actually died from overheating due to a critical component of the booster system failing to detach.
1979: Under the direction of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian University “students” storm the United States Embassy in Tehran and take 90 hostages, 53 of whom are American citizens. Despite a few releases, the Americans are held hostage for 444 days, released by the Iranian government at the hour of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President at noon on January 20th, 1981. One of those “student” thugs bears an uncanny resemblance to the thug who recently served as “President” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohammed Ats-a-dinner-jacket.
1998: Space Shuttle Discovery launches into orbit on STS-95. One of the crew was 77 year old former Marine combat pilot, test pilot, astronaut and Senator, John Glenn. In the control room for his historic return to space was his Capsule Communicator for the riveting Friendship 7 mission at the dawn of American space flight, Scott Carpenter, who reprised for this launch his famous quote from the first one: “Godspeed John Glenn.”